When it comes to youth hockey, being late shouldn’t seal a player’s fate. That doesn’t mean it’s OK to show up after practice has already started. It means you don’t have to be skating backwards by age 7 or make a Squirt-level all-star team to have a successful and fun hockey playing experience over the long haul. In either scenario, it’s truly a case of better to be late than never.
In youth sports – especially in hockey, and especially in the State of Hockey – there seems to be a general belief among many that if your child doesn’t start playing or developing when everyone else supposedly does that he or she needn’t bother trying. Unfortunately, this results in many kids having their hockey experiences cut short – or worse, never even started.
While being a late starter or late bloomer may not always be the easiest path, Wayzata boys’ high school hockey coach Pat O’Leary sees a benefit in the journey.
“The message should be that you need to keep working,” said O’Leary. “All kids will go through some adversity at some point. You’ll make some teams, not make some teams. You just have to keep at it and hopefully those around you will be supportive.”
Starting Late? Learn to Skate
Parents who have kids interested in playing but are nervous they’ll be too far behind shouldn’t worry. There is an entry point for every age group in Minnesota, and kids catch up quickly as long as they get an opportunity, have fun and are in a patient, supportive environment.
While O’Leary himself was one of those kids who started playing at a young age, he has seen through his work with Little Wild Learn to Play that getting into the game a bit later in life is all good. He advises kids first put an emphasis on skating, regardless of when they start.
“One year we had 50 kids who couldn’t move on the ice and by the end they could skate,” O’Leary recalled. “In Plymouth, the majority of our [Little Wild] kids are between 5 and 6, but we get some 7- and 8-year-olds as well. It’s a great way for them to try the game and see if they enjoy it and want to move forward with it. Some associations have Try Hockey for Free or other promotions, so it’s really grown to another level.”
And while many kids start hockey at ages 5-9, older kids can and should join whenever they become interested. In fact, Minnesota Hockey recently launched its first ever Never Too Late Hockey Camp with the goal of introducing more kids ages 9-12 to the game and plans to host it again this coming summer. Plus, the Minnesota Hockey Rec League also welcomes numerous first-time players at ages 9+ each season.
“It’s never too late to get into the game, but some families have the mentality of pushing their kids right into tryouts,” said O’Leary. “You have to learn how to skate before you can do anything else.”
“So, if you’re trying to improve, I suggest doing what I did as a kid – skate outside more, find some indoor ice if you can and do open skating or try to play pond hockey with friends. It doesn’t need to be organized or scheduled.”
The sentiment that it’s never too late holds true for all ages as hockey has evolved into a lifetime sport. There are countless adults playing hockey today who never participated in organized youth hockey, and many of them never even skated as a kid. So if you know someone interested in trying the game, let them know it’s truly never too late in Minnesota!
Slow and Steady Development is A-OK
Then there are the players who are still maturing physically or going through growth spurts (which can impact coordination) or seem to take longer to grasp certain skills. Most athletes haven’t reached their peak at age 14 or 15, so expecting a finished product can put unnecessary stress on player and parent. According to O’Leary, it’s important for young players to be comfortable and build confidence on the ice.
“They have to keep grinding away,” said O’Leary. “As adults, we have to do a better job of not putting kids into categories at such a young age in terms of ability and get out of thinking that kids always have to move to the next level right away. We should let them know if they’re having fun and working hard, a lot can change over time.”
O’Leary would understand better than most the phenomenon of the “late bloomer.” His state title-winning Trojans team in 2016 was a mix of talented, hard-working players with incredible chemistry, who had paid their dues to reach the pinnacle of high school hockey on its biggest stage.
Most of the players on their championship team skated on B-level teams for much of their youth hockey experience. It wasn’t a collection of standouts who dominated on A teams from the time they were Squirts. There were a few of those to be sure, but nearly half the team were Squirt B players as second years. Most played B1 or B2. Fifteen of the trophy-hoisting Trojans played B1 or B2 as first-year Peewees. Only 11 played on the top team as second-year Peewees.
“We had a guy who was average size, a good player, but wasn’t ‘the guy’ people were writing articles about growing up,” said O’Leary. “But he grinded, played through his senior year and won a championship and is playing at the next level. He has enjoyed every year of his hockey career and hard work got him there.”
As O’Leary eludes, the Trojans weren’t lauded for their “blue-chip” prospects at high school either. They are one of only three Class AA State Champions in the past 10 years without a single Mr. Hockey Award finalist on their team and were considered an underdog to even make it out of their section playoffs. Yet, they finished the season as the best team in the state, and five years later, seven players from that team are playing NCAA Division I hockey this year.
The main reason for this is there isn’t a one-size-fits-all development path. There’s no secret sauce or magic formula to guarantee success in the game. Some kids simply take longer to develop. Getting more playing time and experience at their own pace is likely more beneficial than moving up too soon and playing less. So, what’s the rush?
“Part of it is that we live in the social media age, so kids are seeing Players of the Game promoted as Peewees and ranked at a young age and you can’t blame them for wanting to see their name in the paper,” said O’Leary. “It’s good to challenge kids, but I think we need to get back to teaching them to try to be dominant at every level first before trying to move up to the next level. If they’re gifted enough to be in that position, good for them. But let’s make sure we’re pulling the same rope. We want them to enjoy the process and have fun and not wish their lives away.”